I’m at my most creative while running, which can be unfortunate because all those great thoughts just seem to dissipate once my breathing returns to normal. But the questions “Why do I teach?” and “What kind of teacher am I?” return, it seems, every time I lace up my running shoes, and I’ve spent many many miles contemplating the answers. Here’s what I’ve finally hammered out…
I teach students the rules, so they are empowered to break them. The fundamentals of form and grammar are just the starting point in our classroom, the sturdy foundation from which we launch ourselves into the ambiguities of analytical reading, thinking, and writing. For old problems are not solved, nor new ideas generated, by rule-followers. Wordsworth and Coleridge knew the lyric and the ballad inside and out, but their contribution to literary history was the radical combination Lyrical Ballads. In this vein, the lowest-level learning objective I offer students is “mastery,” while the greatest is “innovation.” The goal, I tell them on day one, is not to give me the right answer, but a surprising answer. Over the course of the quarter, I take a scaffolded approach to help students transform their arguments from being simply original to truly compelling — by harnessing textual evidence, substantially analyzing literary techniques, and cogently organizing their ideas.
This process begins by getting students to ask questions. Lots of questions. Then, learning to discern which questions are the most interesting ones to pursue. I begin class on a challenging poem, like Swinburne’s “Hermaphroditus,” by setting a timer for five minutes and instructing students to write down as many questions as they can muster. Prior to that, I have explained that there are three types of questions: questions for information, explanation, and evaluation. The answer to the first type is a fact, while answering the second two constitutes interpretation. For the first, a student might ask, “What type of poem is ‘Hermaphroditus’?” The answer to this question yields new knowledge about the rules of poetic form. The student learns that “Hermaphroditus” perfectly complies with the fixed structure and rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet. For the second type, a question for explanation, a student might inquire, “Why does this poem rely on the technique of chiasmus so heavily?” In this case, the student already knows the rule — that chiasmus is a grammatical construction when clauses are repeated in reverse order, in the same or a modified form — but now she questions why that rule was applied. How does the convention of chiasmus create meaning in the poem? Lastly, in posing a question for evaluation, a student might ask, “Why does it matter that ‘Hermaphroditus’ is a Petrarchan sonnet rather than another type of poem?” Beyond simply knowing the rules of form to ask that question, answering it requires thinking about rule-breaking. “Hermaphroditus” resists the Victorian notion of fruitful heteronormative marriage by subversively using the Petrarchan sonnet (the traditional poetic form for expressing heteronormative love) in order to beautifully represent queer, sterile sexuality.
These three examples have all come from students during their five minutes of question-writing at the start of class. Inevitably, when I ask them to share these questions, the student who asks the first type seems embarrassed, while the interrogators of the second and third types appear more confident. I strive to break down this hierarchy by explaining that all of these questions are important for deriving meaning from the poem. Rather than thinking of questions as “good” or “bad,” I encourage students to think of questions as “interesting” or “boring.” Boring questions can lead to crucial information, but interesting questions generate innovative interpretations. The humanities and the sciences, I tell my students, apply very different methodologies, but they boil down to the same genesis: an interesting question. From there, the humanities scholar develops a working thesis, the scientist a hypothesis. When I say this, the spark of recognition inevitably flares up in several students’ faces, and I know the great barrier that existed in their minds between English and STEM has been shattered.
A great impetus for my rule-breaking pedagogy is a desire to create an inclusive classroom for students of varying academic interests and initial capabilities in critical reading and writing. By breaking down the conventional divide at UCLA between “North Campus” (humanities) and “South Campus” (STEM), I invite all students to become members of a classroom community that learns the rules together, and then supportively experiments with breaking them. However, by participating in the EPIC seminar: “Teaching Excellence in Writing,” I became aware of how I unconsciously made my own kind of rule in the classroom, which had exclusive consequences. Before the seminar, I saw writing as a tool for thinking, but put a premium on hearing those thoughts spoken aloud in class discussion. Accordingly, I weighted class participation as 25% of the overall grade, and expected students to earn full marks by making at least one thoughtful comment per class. By making this rule, I realized, I was implicitly favoring students who were like me: confident speakers. Once I perceived this bias, I knew I had to break my own rule. I remain convinced that the ability to convey one’s thoughts out loud is an incredibly important skill. Accordingly, I incorporate several structured public speaking activities in class (from performing a one-act play, to dramatically reading poetry, to presenting a short conference paper). But I have added to the ways in which a student can earn full marks in participation: submitting short exploratory essays written in class and at home, attending office hours to discuss the readings or their papers, or even emailing me substantive thoughts on the reading. By welcoming students to participate in these less public and oral ways, I have made myself more approachable to English Language Learners and students managing anxiety. Moreover, I am able to build a student’s confidence by incorporating in class discussion what she wrote or said to me privately beforehand (always with her prior permission). I’ll often say something like, “Jordan made a great point about that character in office hours. Jordan, would you like to share what you told me?” Breaking my own rule has effectively opened the classroom to an array of learning types, as one student recently wrote to me: “Your flexibility and your commitment to making me feel comfortable in the class is such an incredible help to me. You are one of the reasons that I can get out of bed everyday and commit myself to schooling especially because I genuinely care about this class. You are truly one of the most inspiring professors I have had.”
The apotheosis of my rule-breaking pedagogy is a final assignment, where students present a short conference paper “close reading” an object that is not capital-L Literature. I encourage students to choose something they find particularly compelling or jarring, and the purpose of their presentation is to explain how literary devices operate in such a way as to foster their admiration or censure. This assignment muddies the rules of disciplinary boundaries, the separation of high and low culture, and the divide between reading and listening. But it does not disregard rules entirely. To the contrary, students gain a better sense of why conventions and expectations are important. They realize how metaphors create meaning outside the confines of a Dickens novel, and how some social media accounts wield punctuation marks as adeptly as a great poem. Students have taken this project in a wide range of directions: from analyzing a vegan chef’s YouTube channel, to a David Geffen School of Medicine’s information pamphlet, and a high-fashion advertising campaign from Dolce and Gabbana. They effectively use the technical terms of literary analysis — they clearly know the rules — but they no longer view literary analysis as a strictly disciplinary practice done twice a week to fulfill their university writing requirement. Literary analysis isn’t an umbrella you pick up when a professor deluges you with questions; it’s a pair of contact lenses you wear every day to see the world, and its many conventions, more clearly. Only then can you see the fault lines and make the revolutionary innovations that our future so desperately needs.